The Beach Boys featured three talented brothers, Brian, Carl and Dennis Wilson, a cousin, Mike Love and a friend, Al Jardine. Of them all, the most talented and sensitive was Brian.
Their first hit was “Surfin’ U.S.A.” which put new lyrics to a Chuck Berry riff. The Beach Boys were soon on a roll with songs revolving around the Southern California youth culture which included cars (“409”), girls (“Fun, Fun, Fun” and “Help Me Rhonda”) and surfing (although it was common knowledge that drummer Dennis was the only surfer). “California Girls” sealed the deal.
They made everyone envious. The Beach Boys sang of a glorious existence in California. Though the “California Dream” never really existed it was still shocking when it collapsed.
Brian had a nervous breakdown in ’65 attributed to the pressures he was under. Unable to handle writing, arranging and performing, he stopped touring and focused on recording (initially replaced by Glen Campbell before Bruce Johnston arrived).
With Brian’s decline into drugs, especially LSD, the music moved in a different direction. The band hated the new sound. They wanted Brian to stick to the formula and keep the hits coming.
Brian also felt the pressure to keep up with The Beatles who he’d always seen as the Beach Boys main rival. The Beatles (basically John Lennon and Paul McCartney) were pushing the boundaries. Brian drove himself to keep up. The drug influenced “Pet Sounds” peaked at #10 on the Billboard 200 on the strength of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” (a song to his future wife) and “Sloop John B.”
Interestingly, it’s two ballads that really shine – the breathtaking “God Only Knows” and the wistful “Caroline, No.” During this period Brian unleashed his certified masterpiece “Good Vibrations.”
The use of vocal harmonies (always a Beach Boys strong point), the fade out in the middle, tempo changes and instrumentation (sleigh bells, cello and theremin) make the song greater than the sum of its intricate parts.
“Good Vibrations” took forever to record, went way over budget and seriously taxed the group’s finances. But the song’s magic allowed the Beach Boys, or a reasonable facsimile, to entertain audiences for over four decades. It’s hard to imagine a Beach Boys concert not including it. There’d probably be a riot.
The rest of the story gets very messy. Brian became an acid cripple and the Beach Boys drifted from label to label becoming, in short order, an oldies act. There were fights, estrangements, family feuds and lawsuits.
The Beach Boys played in front of hundreds of thousands of people at the Washington Mall in both 1980 and 1981. But in ’83 the Beach Boys were schedule to perform on the 4th only to have President Ronald Reagan’s Interior Secretary James Watt ban all Rock concerts from playing at the National Mall… that included the Beach Boys. They were invited back in ‘84 and ’85.
Before the Beach Boys returned to the National Mall Brian was “fired” from the group and had nothing to do with the Beach Boys’ last major hit (#1), the highly forgettable “Kokomo” (’88).
With Dennis (drowning in ’83) and Carl (dying of cancer in ’98) gone, “fragile” Brian had managed to outlive his hardier kid brothers.
Though the story ended badly for the Wilson brothers, they produced some of the most fun, carefree Rock ‘n’ Roll ever. It’s a shame their personal lives rarely reflected that.